Another snowy day. Greenturtle and I decided to go for a walk at Parklands Merwin Preserve, on the road between Lexington and Gridley in McLean County.
At first, the woods seemed almost devoid of birds, and everything seemed so austere. I could hear the sound of my feet squelching along in the snow, occasional traffic noises. The Mackinaw River was almost entirely iced over.
Snow lay heavily on the tree branches. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang."
Then, we heard tapping, rap-rap-rap against the tree trunk. The sound carried well without any foliage to muffle it -- as if it were coming from a huge woodpecker. In that same area, I also saw some chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, proof that the woods weren't really blighted. And the woodpecker, once spotted, turned out to be of completely modest proportions: a juvenile red-headed woodpecker. If you click on the photo to enlarge it you will see his head is transitioning from brown to red.(Juvenile red-headeds have brown heads, which can be confusing to new birders!)
A bit further down the trail, while I was looking at some tufted titmice, Greenturtle decided to photograph the birder rather than the birds. Just as well, in the dim winter light, all we would have caught would probably be gray blobs on dark branches.
The most exciting part of our walk, unfortunately, went entirely unphotographed. I saw a large bird fly away over the treetops as we approached. I had a very quick look, but it had a rounded shape that made me think, "Owl!" We stood for a few minutes, listening to two unseen great horned owls hoot a duet from the evergreens. We were able to creep slowly off the trail and into the trees, stopping every few feet to listen for them. Finally, we got too close, and I just caught a glimpse of the nearer owl flying away again. Luckily owl calls are quite distinctive, because really all I saw was his tail end soaring away as quickly as he (or she) could -- not even a good look at the "horns."
We finished the walk with a stroll to the oak savanna, a remnant of the beautiful ecosystem that once was prevalent across the mid-west and is now perhaps the most endangered habitat on earth. Oak savannas are open woodlands that have a park-like feel, because the huge trees prevent a thick understory from forming. Savannas are important for species like eastern wood-pewees and red-headed woodpeckers like the one we'd seen earlier.
When Sunwiggy and I first saw the Merwin Preserve's savanna, we were so impressed with it that we named it "the Beautiful Place." Even in the heart of winter, there's something special about it....